Running at War, Shu-fang let the other woman throw her down the embankment. There was no time to pause. Shu-fang got up and started to run.
The shriek rang in her ears. She remembered once that would have made her pause, deny, but Shu-fang knew better. She had known better for some time.
It didn’t matter what War said. War would never understand. Shu-fang didn’t really need her to.
She only had to get away.
War flipped her up, then without getting off her back swept Shu-fang’s feet from underneath her. There was no way she could stop that, but she could turn it into a back-flip. Shu-fang had long since realized how unreal her fights looked to other people.
What was her advantage? War wouldn’t understand. That was it. Shu-fang would be able to run because War didn’t expect her to retreat. Or if she did, she would expect it to be to regroup. Shu-fang had to run and lose her in the wilds.
She lost track of what War did, but Shu-fang managed to step aside before War clocked her in the head, evading another grapple. Shu-fang already felt sore. War never pulled any punches. A lesser person would need hospitalization by now.
Lesser? Mortal. This was why Shu-fang wanted it to end. She didn’t want to think like this.
“My next battle will not be my choice.”
“Let me remind you why it should!”
With a roar, War came at her. Shu-fang dodged to the side – perhaps one of the few people, mortal or otherwise, who could do such a thing. War still struck out to the side as she came and Shu-fang ducked down, kicking up dirt at War’s face.
There was no winning this confrontation. One never won against War. One did not win a contest of strength, one did not win a battle in cunning. She had disengage.
War would never run away, so Shu-fang would have to.
With both hands, War grabbed her. Shu-fang let her, partially because she knew she couldn’t avoid it and partially because it gave her a chance to think about what she needed to do next. War flung her down, landing on top of her. Through the pain (which she had long since become desensitized to), Shu-fang simply rolled the both of them further down a slope. If she stopped or agreed, War would drag her away as prisoner. Shu-fang supposed she could handle the years of torture that might come from that. Not torture by War, just by being around the Gods.
Yet she didn’t want to give in yet. Not yet. She had just started. There was so much time to solve this.
Then she felt it.
It came slowly, but after a couple of days she could not deny the sense in the air. How it began to twist the people here. Spats over nothing, plain arguments nearing the heated peak. It was blood lust. It crept through the trees and down into the town, slipping into the houses and into their residents. They looked out, suspicious of strangers. Ready to bear arms.
War had come.
With a sigh, Shu-fang packed up her things and got out of town before War made herself known. Before War tore this peaceful town apart.
Shu-fang went by foot. She didn’t take the road, not yet, because she wasn’t risking travelling along with someone else when War showed up, because War would catch up. Shu-fang did not doubt War would catch up. She eventually heard the footsteps behind her, consistent and ever closer. Unlaboured.
Still, Shu-fang had had them show up at random times so often in her life that she always expected one to show up. It was how she ended up talking to herself on many occasions. And then also not speaking out loud to herself on others. It depended on what she was okay with another person perhaps eavesdropping on her hearing.
Offending the gods was one thing though. Getting away from them was another.
Now, in the library, Shu-fang began her research. There were all of the things she knew, but that had the problem with specifics being buried under the mountain of things she knew. Then there were the many things she did not know. Searching her memory for those things would not help. Searching the records here would give her a starting point.
She made a chart of every place every god was ever mentioned in. It was a lot of places to go through, places that in many ways no longer existed. At least not in name or in shape. Shu-fang had to determine where those places were now. She pulled out a map in order to figure it out.
Many sticky notes later, she finally found a selection of places that didn’t show up in any of her memories, any of the stories. Places that the gods were not known for.
It was time to go.
The glimmer of fascination that the gods had held over her once had long since disappeared behind that veil and flashlight. The gods were just as petty and dumb as mortals were. Maybe even more so. Because they lived forever and Shu-fang expected them to know better.
After years of fighting for one god, then being snatched up into the services of another, it had all become the same. Shu-fang was more likely to serve the god that gave her the most to do, or the most interesting thing to do. Sometimes that was the underdog. Sometimes it was the morally reprehensible one.
It was thinking about this yesterday, with her bottle of Dynasty Wine, that she had come up with the idea of retirement. She was tired. Tired of doing dumb things for dumb people. Of having lost her morals, her morale, and all of those other important things that started with the letter ‘m’.
“I don’t care if I offend them anymore,” she said to the empty room, waiting for a god to pop out and ask what she was talking about.
They didn’t do that. Often, anyway.
Just in case they needed further proof, she picked up her sword and broke it in half with her own two hands. The sword was nothing special, the most recent in a very long line of tools that she had borne. Shu-fang didn’t need anything special. The symbolism might be enough though. She hoped so. It would make up the fact that gripping the blade as she had cut into her hands, causing her to bleed.
It meant little to her. Her hands would heal. It didn’t matter what happened to her injuries. Here now, gone later. None of it would kill her.
Nothing could kill her. It was how Shu-fang had lived for thousands of years. Being immortal, being invulnerable.
Shu-fang wiped off her hands, picked up her small bag and left this apartment for good. Someone wouldn’t be happy with the state of how she left it.
She left enough funds behind that hopefully no one would mind.
The world outside went on as it had been before her decision had been made. The sun was bright, people were in a festive mood, and the vibration of the world continued. Shu-fang fit into the crowd easily. No one recognized her as anything different, which meant she could follow the flow and make her way out. Perhaps it would be enough to distract any eyes that were on her now. She bought some festival chains on her way through, placing them about her shoulders. From above, from below, she would seem even more like those around her.
The trees stood as tall as ever. They dwarfed the town. Mi’s true test began here. Perhaps here was where their hidden injury would strike out. Perhaps Fo and Jahan wanted to keep Mi from this. No, Jahan was envious. Mi’s mind came to that conclusion in a moment. Jahan was envious they were better at scouting. Jahan wanted to do it and told everyone Mi’s injuries were worse. Fo played along, continued to play along, because he worried without reason all the time.
Mi climbed, feeling free. Mi climbed, not feeling as their right hand couldn’t grip as tightly as it once did. Mi climbed, not realizing their boots remained on solid ground. Mi climbed, the stump of their left wrist pressing into the bark so hard as to scrape the raw skin.
With a smile, Mi’s mind was above. Where they could look down on the city. Look down on everything. Away from the ground, where somewhere their left hand had fallen.
As they used to, in their mind, they saw themselves above. Mi couldn’t have been happier. They leapt from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise.
As Jahan and Fo went to get them their stretcher, Mi ran away.
They could run. The most important thing of all – nothing stopped them from pushing their uniform over and running out of their room. They ran down the hallway and stopped at the front door. Peering out, Mi waited until they couldn’t see Jahan and Fo anymore. They waited until the coast was clear. Then they ran out the door and through the streets.
Mi was fast. This had always been true. A scout couldn’t be slow. A scout had to be fast everywhere they ended up. Even when another person noticed Mi, none could catch them. Mi was too fast. With no one expecting them, they could run right down the road and straight out of the city.
Mi almost expected not to make it. That they had some grievous injury they couldn’t recognize and that was why they had been laid up for several months, not allowed to return to the fight. But they made it. Nothing slowed them, other than the slight strain from muscles not recently used. Mi could feel their heart pounding, a good feeling. No one could stop them. They escaped.
There was nothing she could do but cry, but if there was anything Salma couldn’t let herself do it was cry. Even now that she didn’t care if the cottage had her where she wouldn’t be able to hide her tears. Her vision remained blurry, the waterworks were there. She left the suitcase at the front door, wandering back over to the armchair. She nearly tripped over the book that had hit her earlier. Absently, she picked it up, setting it in her lap as she sat down.
Salma sat there for some time until the tears finally spilled down her cheeks. Her shoulders didn’t move, sinking into the back of the armchair, more comfortable than it had any right to be. She was tired, that was it. She had slept poorly, after all. And there was the hunger gnawing at her again – those granola bars hadn’t lasted long. Pulling her feet up into the chair with her, Salma nearly drifted off.
The cottage couldn’t hold her here forever. Her plan was simple. The cottage would eventually drop its guard and all she had to do was run for the door. The moment she could get the front door open, she would slide her luggage into the doorway to keep it from shutting. Then she could get out. She’d pull her things out after her. She was willing to leave the rest of her things behind forever as collateral. It didn’t matter.